Read an Excerpt
December 14, 1944
Puerto Princesa Prison Camp, Palawan, Philippines
All about them, their work lay in ruins. Their raison d'etre, the task their commandant had said would take them three months but had taken nearly three years. A thousand naked days of clearing, lifting, leveling, wheelbarrowing, hacking. Thirty-odd months in close heavy heat smashing rocks into smaller rocks, and smaller rocks into pebbles, hammering sad hunks of brain coral into bone-white flour with which to make concrete. Ripping out the black humus floor of the jungle, felling the gnarled beasts of mahogany or narra or kamagong that happened to be in the way. Above the bay, in a malarial forest skittering with monkeys and monitor lizards, they had built an airstrip where none should be, and now they were happy to see it in ruins, cratered by bombs.
One hundred and fifty slaves stood on a tarmac 2,200 meters long and 210 meters wide, straining with shovels and pickaxes and rakes. Ever since the air raids started two months earlier, Lieutenant Sato, the one they called "the Buzzard," had ordered them out each morning to fill the bomb pits, to make the runway usable again. This morning had been no different. The men had risen at dawn and eaten a breakfast of weevily rice, then climbed aboard the trucks for the short ride to the airstrip. As usual, they worked all morning and took a break for lunch around noon. But now the Buzzard said no lunch would be served on the strip, that instead the food would be prepared back at the barracks. The men were puzzled, because they'd never eaten lunch at their barracks before, not on a workday. It didn't make sense to drive back now, for they still had considerable repair work to do. Sato offered no explanation.
The prisoners crawled into their trucks again and took the bumpy serpentine road back to the prison. In the meager shade of spindly coconut palms, they ate their lunches squatting beside their quarters in an open-air stockade that was secured with two barbed-wire fences. The entire compound was built at the edge of a cliff that dropped fifty ragged feet to a coral beach splashed by the warm blue waters of Puerto Princesa Bay.
Around 1 p.m. the air-raid alarm sounded. It was nothing more than a soldier pounding on an old Catholic church bell splotched with verdigris. The men looked up and saw two American fighters, P-38s, streaking across the sky, but the planes were moving away from the island and were too high to pose a danger. Having become discriminating appraisers of aerial threat, the prisoners ignored the signal and resumed their lunches.
A few minutes later a second air-raid alarm sounded. The men consulted the skies and this time saw an American bomber flying far in the distance. They didn't take the alarm seriously and kept on eating. Presently a third air-raid alarm sounded, and this time Sato and a few of his men marched into the compound with sabers drawn and rifles fixed with bayonets. Sato insisted that everyone heed the signal and descend into the air-raid hovels. "They're coming!" he shrieked. "Planes–hundreds of planes!"
Again the men were puzzled, and this time suspicious. When planes had come before, Sato had never registered any particular concern for their safety. Many times they'd been working on the landing strip when American planes had menaced the site. The Japanese would leap into their slit trenches, but often made the prisoners work until the last possible minute. The Americans had to fend for themselves, out in the open, as aircraft piloted by their own countrymen dropped out of the sky to bomb and strafe the airstrip. Several weeks earlier an American from Kentucky named James Stidham had taken a piece of shrapnel from one of the American bombers, a B-24 Liberator, and was now paralyzed. During the lunch hour he lay on a stretcher in the compound, silent and listless, with a fellow prisoner spoon-feeding him his ration.
"Hundreds of planes!" Sato shouted again, with even more urgency. "Hurry."
The slaves moved toward the air-raid shelters. They were primitive, nothing more than narrow slits dug four feet deep and roofed with logs covered over with a few feet of dirt. There were three main trenches, each about a hundred feet long. On both ends, the structures had tiny crawl-space entrances that admitted one man at a time. Approximately fifty men could fit inside each one, but they had to pack themselves in with their knees tucked under their chins. The prisoners had constructed these crude shelters for their own safety after the American air raids started in October, to avoid more casualties like Stidham. With Sato's reluctant approval, they'd also painted "POW" on the galvanized-metal roof of their barracks.
Sato was behaving strangely today, the prisoners thought, but perhaps he knew something, perhaps a massive air attack was indeed close at hand. All the signs pointed to the imminent arrival of the American forces. The tide of the war was turning fast*#8212;everyone knew it. That very morning a Japanese seaplane had spotted a convoy of American destroyers and battleships churning through the Sulu Sea en route to Mindoro, the next large island north of Palawan. If not today, then someday soon Sato and his company of airfield engineers would have to reckon with the arrival of U.S. ground troops, and their work on Palawan would be finished.
Reluctantly, the American prisoners did as they were told, all 150 of them, crawling single file into the dark, poorly ventilated pits. Everyone but Stidham, whose stretcher was conveniently placed beside one of the trench entrances. If the planes came, his buddies would gather his limp form and tuck him into the shelter with everyone else.
They waited and waited but heard not a single American plane, let alone a hundred. They huddled in the stifling dankness of their collective body heat, sweat coursing down their bare chests. The air-raid bell continued to peal. A Navy signalman named C. C. Smith refused to go into his pit. Suddenly the Buzzard set upon him. He raised his saber high so that it gleamed in the midday sun, and with all his strength he brought it blade side down. Smith's head was cleaved in two, the sword finally stopping midway down the neck.
Then, peeking out the ends of the trenches, the men saw several soldiers bursting into the compound. They were carrying five-gallon buckets filled with a liquid. The buckets sloshed messily as the soldiers walked. With a quick jerk of the hands, they flung the contents into the openings of the trenches. By the smell of it on their skin, the Americans instantly recognized what it was–high-octane aviation fuel from the airstrip. Before they could apprehend the full significance of it, other soldiers tossed in lighted bamboo torches. Within seconds, the trenches exploded in flames. The men squirmed over each other and clawed at the dirt as they tried desperately to shrink from the intense heat. They choked back the smoke and the fumes, their nostrils assailed by the smell of singed hair and roasting flesh. They were trapped like termites in their own sealed nest.
Only a few managed to free themselves. Dr. Carl Mango, from Pennsylvania, sprang from his hole, his clothes smoldering. His arms were outstretched as he pleaded–"Show some reason, please God show reason"–but a machine gunner mowed him down.
Another prisoner crawled from his trench, wrested a rifle from the hands of a soldier, and shot him before receiving a mortal stab in the back. A number of men dashed toward the fence and tried to press through it but were quickly riddled with lead, leaving a row of corpses hung from the barbed strands like drying cuttlefish. A few men managed to slip through the razor ribbon and leap from the high cliff, but more soldiers were waiting on the beach to finish them off. Recognizing the futility of escape but wanting to wreak a parting vengeance, one burning prisoner emerged from his trench, wrapped his arms tightly around the first soldier he saw, and didn't let go–a death embrace that succeeded in setting the surprised executioner on fire.
All the while, Lieutenant Sato scurried from trench to trench with saber drawn, loudly exhorting his men and occasionally punctuating his commands with a high, nervous laugh. At his order, another wave of troops approached the air-raid shelters, throwing grenades into the flaming entrances and raking them with gunfire. Some of the troops poked their rifle barrels through the entrances of the trenches and fired point-blank at the huddled forms within. James Stidham, the paralytic who had been watching all of this from his stretcher, quietly moaned in terror. A soldier stepped over to him and with a perfunctory glance fired two slugs into his face.
When Lieutenant Sato was satisfied that all 150 prisoners were dead, he ordered his men to heave the stray bodies back into the smoky pits. The soldiers splattered additional gasoline inside and reignited the trenches. They tossed in more grenades as well as sticks of dynamite to make it appear as though the victims had perished in an air raid after all, with the shelters receiving several "direct hits" from American bombs. The immense pall of smoke curling from the three subterranean pyres was noted by observers five miles distant, across Puerto Princesa Bay.
Entries from Japanese diaries later found at the camp spoke hauntingly of December 14. "Although they were prisoners of war," one entry stated, "they truly died a pitiful death. From today on I will not hear the familiar greeting 'Good morning, Sergeant Major.'" Another mentioned that on the beach below the camp, the "executed prisoners [are] floating and rolling among the breakwaters." Said another: "Today the shop is a lonely place. There are numerous corpses...and the smell is unbearable."
On January 7, 1945, an officer from the Army's intelligence branch, known as G-2, sat down with a man named Eugene Nielsen, who had a remarkable story to tell. Their conversation was not casual; it was an official interrogation, and the intelligence officer, a Captain Ickes, was taking notes. At the time of the debriefing, Nielsen and Ickes happened to be on the tropical island of Morotai, a tiny speck in the Spice Islands of the Dutch East Indies that had become a crucial stepping-stone in General MacArthur's drive toward Japan. Eugene Nielsen was an Army Private First Class who had been with the 59th Coast Artillery on the besieged island of Corregidor–directly across from Bataan–when he was captured by the Japanese in May 1942. Born and raised in a small town in the mountains of Utah, Nielsen was twenty-eight years old, and three of those years he had spent languishing in a prison camp near the Palawan capital of Puerto Princesa. There he had done backbreaking work on an airfield detail, crushing rock and coral and mixing concrete by hand.
Nielsen had been evacuated to Morotai along with five other ex-POWs. He was convalescing while awaiting shipment home to the United States. Although he was racked with the residual effects of the various diseases he'd contracted while starving in the tropics, he had recovered much of his strength since his escape from prison. He had two bullet wounds which were still on the mend.
The officer from G-2 sat horrified in his chair as Nielsen told his story, which concerned an incident on Palawan several weeks earlier, the full details of which no official from U.S. Army intelligence had apparently heard before.
The trench smelled very strongly of gas. There was an explosion and flames shot through the place. Some of the guys were moaning. I realized this was it‹either I had to break for it or die. Luckily I was in the trench that was closest to the fence. So I jumped up and dove through the barbed wire. I fell over the cliff and somehow grabbed on to a small tree, which broke my fall and kept me from getting injured. There were Japanese soldiers posted down on the beach. I buried myself in a pile of garbage and coconut husks. I kept working my way under until I got fairly well covered up. Lying there, I could feel the little worms and bugs eating holes in the rubbish, and then I felt them eating holes into the skin of my back.
When he looked around, Nielsen realized that a surprising number of Americans had made it down to the beach–perhaps twenty or thirty. Some, like Nielsen, had torn bare-handed through the barbed wire, but the largest group had made it down by virtue of a subterranean accident: a natural escape hatch that led from one of the trenches out to a shallow ledge in the eroded cliff wall. Several weeks earlier, while digging the air-raid pits, some of the Americans had serendipitously discovered this small fissure, and they'd had the forethought to conceal it by plugging the opening with sandbags and a veneer of dirt so the Japanese would never see it. They had thought, in a not very specific way, that this tunnel might come in handy someday, and they were right. One by one, they escaped the incinerating heat of their shelter by crawling through the hole and burrowing out to the rock landing. From there they jumped down to the beach, where they hid among the various crevices and rock outcroppings.
By doing so they gained only a temporary reprieve, however, trading one form of butchery for another. Eugene Nielsen, still lying in the refuse heap, heard gunfire sputtering up and down the beach. Systematically, the soldiers were searching the rocks and hunting down fugitives. It was obvious that they intended to exterminate every last one. The prisoners camouflaged themselves with slathered mud and cringed in the rocky clefts and folds, lacerating their legs and feet on the coarse coral as they tried to squeeze into ever tighter recesses. Other prisoners took refuge in a sewage pipe that was half filled with stagnant water, while still others concealed themselves in thick mattresses of jungle weeds higher along the banks.
The seaside massacre went on for three or four hours. The Japanese would pluck the prisoners from their hiding places and slay them on the spot, either by gunshot or by bayonet. Squads of soldiers combed the weeds in tight formation, plunging their bayonets every foot or so until they harpooned their quarry. One American who'd been caught was tortured at some length by six soldiers, one of whom carried a container of gasoline. Seeing the jerry can, the American understood his fate and begged to be shot. The soldiers doused one of his feet with gasoline and set it alight, then did the same with the other. When he collapsed, they poured the rest of the gasoline over his body and ignited it, leaving him writhing in flames on the beach.
Not far away, a prisoner from South Dakota named Erving Evans, realizing he'd been seen and hoping to avoid the same fate, leaped up from a trash pile where he'd been hiding and blurted, "All right, you bastards*#8212;here I am, and don't miss."
They were bayoneting guys down low and making them suffer. They shot or stabbed twelve Americans and then dug a shallow grave in the sand and threw them in. Some of these men were still groaning while they were covered with sand. Then the Japs started to cover the grave with rubbish from the pile where I was hiding. They scraped some of the coconut husks off, and found me lying there. Then they uncovered me from the shoulders on down. They thought I was dead, and seemed to think I had been buried by my friends. I lay there for about fifteen minutes while they stood around talking Japanese. It was getting to be late in the afternoon. One of the guys hollered it was time to eat dinner, and every one of the Japs there went off somewhere to eat. I got up and ran down along the beach and hid in a little pocket in a coral reef there.
Down among the coral, Nielsen encountered seven other survivors. One of them was very badly burned. His hair was singed and "his hide was rubbing off when he brushed against anything." They were all crouched among the rocks, hiding from a barge that was methodically trolling the coves and foreshores. Having exhausted their hunt by land, the Japanese were now searching by water. Aboard the barge were three or four soldiers armed with rifles as well as a tripod machine gun.
Nielsen peeked around the corner and saw the barge coming. He decided he was insufficiently hidden, so he broke off from the group and crouched behind a bush close by. From where he was secreted, he could watch the barge approaching. The Japanese were whispering among themselves and excitedly pointing out crannies that looked promising. One of the seven Americans, a marine from Mississippi named J. O. Warren, wasn't leaning back quite far enough. The Japanese saw his foot protruding from a rock and immediately shot it. Warren dropped in agony from his wound. In what seemed to be a sacrificial act intended to help his comrades, Warren hurled himself out in the open so as not to tip off the whereabouts of the other six. He was immediately shot and killed. The barge passed on.
I left that area and started down the beach. About fifty yards ahead I ran into more Japanese. Suddenly I realized I was surrounded. They were up above me and also coming in from both sides. I was trapped. So I jumped in the sea. I swam underwater as far as I could. When I came up there were twenty Japanese firing at me, both from the cliff and from the beach. Shots were hitting all around me. One shot hit me in the armpit and grazed my ribs. Another hit me in the left thigh, then another one hit me right along the right side of my head, grazing my temple. I think it knocked me out temporarily. For a short period I was numb in the water, and I nearly drowned. Then I found a large coconut husk bobbing around in the bay and used it to shield my head as I swam.
They kept shooting at Nielsen from the beach. He decided to swim back toward the shore so they'd think he'd given up and was coming in. He hoped they'd momentarily let up on their fire, and they did. Nielsen then angled slightly and swam parallel to the coastline for about a hundred yards. The Japanese followed him down the beach, patiently tracking alongside him, step for stroke. Occasionally they pinged a shot or two in his direction, but mostly they just kept a close eye on him.
I came down to a place along the shore where there were a lot of trees and bushes in the water. I knew they were following me, so I went toward shore and splashed to make a little noise. I wanted them to think I was finally coming in. Then I abruptly turned around and went out just as quiet as possible and started swimming across the bay. They never shot at me again. Probably it was too dark for them to see me. I swam most of the night. I couldn't see the other side of the bay but I knew it was about five miles. About halfway out I ran into a strong current. It seemed like I was there for a couple hours making no headway. Finally I reached the opposite shore and crawled on my hands and knees up on the rocks. I was in a mangrove swamp. I was too weak to stand up. It was about 4 a.m. I'd been swimming for nearly nine hours.
Washed up on the far shores of Puerto Princesa Bay, Nielsen was a pitiful sight–naked, nursing two bullet wounds, his skin crosshatched with lacerations. He rested for a few hours and then stumbled half delirious through the swamp until he encountered a Filipino who was walking along a path, wielding a bolo knife. In his current state, Nielsen was suspicious of anyone carrying a knife. The Filipino seemed wary of Nielsen's hideous castaway appearance but was not especially frightened. "I couldn't imagine how he could be so cool," Nielsen said. At first Nielsen worried that the man was a Japanese sympathizer, but then the Filipino offered him water. Nielsen asked the man to take down a letter. "I think I am the only one alive from the Palawan prison camp," he said. "I want you to write to the War Department to tell them about the Japanese massacre of the Americans at Puerto Princesa." Without uttering a word in reaction, the Filipino began to walk away from Nielsen. Then he abruptly turned around and said cryptically, "You have friends here."
Perplexed, Nielsen followed his new acquaintance down a path through dense jungle to a hideout where Filipino guerrillas were stationed. There, to his amazement, Nielsen encountered two more American survivors from the camp, Albert Pacheco and Edwin Petry. "I didn't believe it at first," said Nielsen. "I thought I was seeing things." Each of the two men had his own grisly story to tell, the details varying only slightly from Nielsen's account. Pacheco and Petry had hidden together in a coral cave that was half flooded with seawater. "The crabs ate on us pretty good down there," Petry said. The two men were forced to vacate the cave when it became completely flooded at high tide. Like Nielsen, they started swimming across the bay around dusk, but they'd enjoyed more favorable currents.
Later Nielsen, Pacheco, and Petry hooked up with three additional escapees. Still others would wash up over the succeeding days, bringing the total of known Palawan survivors to eleven. One had endured an encounter with a sand shark. The last arrival, Glenn McDole, from Des Moines, Iowa, was found clinging to a Filipino fish trap out in the bay. Local fishermen hauled him in, half alive, with the morning catch.
By guerrilla escort, Nielsen and the original five survivors made their way out of the Japanese-held province of Palawan, first by foot and then by an outrigger canoe, or banca, powered by blankets that were thrown up as makeshift sails. On January 6, the half dozen men were finally evacuated by a Catalina flying boat to the island of Morotai, where they came under the care of the U.S. Army.
Copyright © 2001 by Hampton Sides